USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Allow one missing piece of furniture to speak, at least in some part, to Virginia Tech's new reality. It is – or was, rather, though it still technically fulfills its original purpose – a glass case left empty for a simple reason: Eventually, it would hold the Hokies' national championship trophy.
In 1998, Frank Beamer and Tech decided to place the empty case within its main lobby area as a way to motivate, true, but also to signal to those inside and out of the program that the completion of such an achievement – the arrival of a national championship – was simply a matter of time.
It even came with a marker, a red placard emblazoned with white letters: "This area is reserved for the national championship trophy," it read.
And there it remained, a case left empty by design that remained empty, against the Hokies' wishes. There were near-misses: Tech had the opportunity in 1999, nearly returned in 2000 and had close calls in 2005 and 2007, but enters 2014 as far removed from the championship picture as at any point outside Beamer's get-the-foundation-set early era.
The case is already gone. The program decided to remove it from sight during the spring, after it had already suffered the wear of tear of years of disuse – taped together, banded in place, jerry-rigged into standing order after a decade of serving as a constant marker of achievements unachieved.
In its place stands a human-size Virginia Tech mascot, his orange peak pointed down, pigeon-toed, eyes set strongly in the distance, arms crossed, ever vigilant. A good move, design-wise: It's easy to remove an oversize bird and add a title trophy, and the fowl comes without the daily reminder of what may never be.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
That's my take: VT goes 9-3, 6-2 in the ACC, and returns to the conference title game. It won't always be pretty, but the Hokies are still suited for a return to the national conversation.
In a nutshell: Virginia Tech played two elite teams, Alabama and UCLA, and barely sniffed competitiveness. The offense played good teams and bad, sharing with each quality of opponent a tough-to-swallow similarity: Tech's attack was pitiful regardless of the competition, as long as the team on the opposite sideline played on the Football Bowl Subdivision level. Think of this way: If we remove Western Carolina from the equation, the Hokies would've ranked 107th in scoring, 110th in total offense, 111th in rushing, 82nd in quarterback efficiency, 82nd in completion percentage and 77th in interceptions – and not to say the Hokies' with-Western-Carolina rankings were much better. Tech wanted to run but couldn't; Tech wanted to pass off the run but couldn't; the Hokies wanted to improve but didn't.
High point: Dominating Miami (Fla.) on Nov. 9, thanks to a hey-that's-fun performance on offense, and topping Virginia – yes, again – to end the regular season.
Low point: Second-half, single-possession losses to Duke, Boston College and Maryland.
Tidbit: Beamer is one of 10 coaches in Football Bowl Subdivision history to win 200 games at a single school. The others: Florida State's Bobby Bowden, Penn State's Joe Paterno, Brigham Young's LaVell Edwards, Nebraska's Tom Osborne, Chicago's Amos Alonzo Stagg, Nevada's Chris Ault, Alabama's Bear Bryant, Ohio State's Woody Hayes and Georgia's Vince Dooley.
Tidbit (dominance edition): Another year, another win over the Cavaliers – and another update to this tidbit. The Hokies have now taken 10 games in a row against Virginia in the end-of-season Commonwealth Cup, making this one of the most one-sided rivalries in the FBS. VT has won 14 of 15 against Virginia, losing in 2003, with only three of these wins – 2008, 2012 and 2013 – coming by less than 12 points.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Classic Thanksgiving side dishes
1. Mashed potatoes
3. Sweet potatoes
5. Cranberry sauce
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: There's a completion underway at quarterback, though it's of the very casual, uneventful variety. Yes, the Hokies have options, but a strong fall camp will create the expected turn of events: Michael Brewer, the Texas Tech transfer, is widely expected to assume control of the offense once he grasps the various nuts and bolts of coordinator Scot Loeffler's system. Perhaps one adjustment is going overlooked: Brewer has to learn to take snaps from under center, believe it or not, after spending the start of his career in Tech's shotgun-heavy, pass-happy attack. I'd be surprised if Brewer doesn't take over – and do well, I'd say, given his passing acumen – but I view it as a very strong positive that Tech has senior Mark Leal, last year's backup, and sophomore Brenden Motley. This ensures that Brewer's road to the top of the depth chart won't come without a fight – meaning he'll have to earn the nod, and I see that as bringing the best out of the junior before kicking off the regular season. Let's remember a very key fact: With all due respect to his predecessor, Brewer's experience gives the Hokies a reliable passer coming off of play-action.
That's Loeffler's dream, in fact: Tech ramrods the line of scrimmage with the running game, opening up lanes downfield for an opportunistic – but not overly aggressive – passing game. More so than last fall, the Hokies have nice depth in the backfield, giving this offense the option of a by-committee style. The leader will be sophomore Trey Edmunds (675 yards), followed by a change-of-pace runner in junior J.C. Coleman (284 yards). Beyond this top pair, much depends on two freshmen: Shai McKenzie, who may head for a redshirt due to last fall's ACL tear, and Marshawn Williams, who must improve his conditioning to work his way into the rotation. If neither is ready to take on carries, look for Tech to augment Edmunds and Coleman with sophomore Joel Caleb, fresh off a strong spring, and sophomore Jerome Wright, who can fill a few different roles in the backfield. Look for overall production to improve thanks to a stronger offensive front and an increased workload for Tech's traditional running game.
The receiver corps responded terrifically after a disastrous start against Alabama, ending with a program-record three players with at least 600 receiving yards. All return in 2014, and one stands out: Joshua Stanford (40 receptions for 640 yards) carried his torrid close to last season into the spring, making the sophomore a target to watch in the ACC. The top grouping will feature Stanford, senior Willie Byrn (51 for 660) and junior Demetri Knowles (45 for 641), giving the unit some continuity while the younger core develops. And it's a nice young core: Tech brings back or adds into the mix sophomore Carlis Parker, a former converted quarterback, redshirt freshman Deon Newsome and true freshman Cam Phillips, Isaiah Ford and Jaylen Bradshaw, the latter group perhaps speedy enough to stretch the field as rookies. At tight end, the Hokies will use the tandem of sophomore Kalvin Cline (26 for 321) and junior Ryan Malleck, with Malleck back from last year's injury.
Defense: When Kendall Fuller (58 tackles, 6 interceptions) and Brandon Facyson (27 tackles, 5 interceptions) add experience to some immense, nearly incalculable physical gifts and instincts, Virginia Tech will have the best cornerback tandem in college football. Put another way: Virginia Tech is very close to housing the best cornerback pair in the country. In Fuller, the Hokies have reeled in a defender with off-the-charts potential; as some have suggested, he may end his career as the finest player at the deepest position in program history. Facyson trails, but not to a significant degree: He's got that indefinable ability to discover the football in the air, the mentality needed to gamble and the physical gifts needed to take advantage, really only coming back down to Earth last fall due to a second-half injury. There's really not much more than can be said: Bud Foster will be able to draw up whatever he wants from the front seven due to this pair's ability to stand and deliver on an island. I wish I could buy stock in this sophomore duo – but that's still against NCAA rules, at last glance.
The secondary as a whole is by leaps and bounds the strongest unit on the roster – and really, along with defensive line, the only positional grouping where Florida State doesn't lead the entire ACC without any debate. With Fuller and Facyson on the edges, the Hokies will have seniors Detrick Bonner (48 tackles) and Kyshoen Jarrett (71 tackles) patrolling the back end; both are far stronger today than two years ago, when each struggled in the transition to safety from cornerback. Behind this top quartet, Tech will call on cornerbacks Donovan Riley and Chuck Clark – both are going to spend time at nickel back – and safeties Desmond Frye and Der'Woun Greene, with Greene showing an ability to flex between multiple spots. Likewise with four-star freshmen Holland Fisher and C.J. Reavis, though both will start their careers at safety. In total: Tech has one of the nation's best defensive backfields.
The front four loses a heavy portion of last season's disruptiveness, both inside and out, but it's far from a questionable situation – among the starting lineup, at least. The top four is headlined by senior tackle Luther Maddy (55 tackles, 13.5 for loss), the line's lone returning starter, a clear-cut all-league pick and the foundational piece for the entire group. It's fair to have high hopes for junior Corey Marshall, who will join Maddy inside after an outstanding spring – it's clear he seems motivated by missing last season. It's also safe to be excited about what's going on at end, but let's be a little slow with the praise: Dadi Nicolas (32 tackles, 4.0 sacks) could be an all-conference selection if he continues to produce at an equal clip to his backup performance, but that's a question; Ken Ekanem is healthy, which is huge, but he has yet to parlay his gifts into anything nearing optimal production. But this starting group is very solid as a whole, meaning Tech can spend August developing depth from the group of Dewayne Alford, Seth Dooley, Nigel Williams and Woody Baron, among a few others.
Tech is weakest at linebacker, but that's survivable: It's fine to have some issues at the spot when you have a good line and an absolutely superb secondary. The middle will go to senior Chase Williams, who has patiently waited his turn for the starting role. He'll be joined inside by junior Deon Clarke, who stepped up in the spring, showing good burst in the pass rush. The Hokies seem to have three viable options on the outside, if we count senior Derek Di Nardo. But it's really a two-horse competition between juniors Josh Trimble and Ronny Vandyke, particularly with Vandyke working his way back from last fall's shoulder injury. Even if Trimble gets the starting nod, look for Vandyke to step into the Hokies' lineup as a valuable coverage linebacker on third down.
Special teams: There are more options at kicker than preferable, really. The old adage is true, but with a twist: In reality, if you have anything more than three kickers battling for the job you probably have, well, none. The Hokies will find one, however, from a group of sophomore Eric Kristensen, senior Michael Branthover, sophomore Mitchell Ludwig and former Richmond transfer Remington Hinshaw – and it's probably going to come down to Kristensen and Hinshaw, in my mind. The Hokies do have one of the ACC's best punters in A.J. Hughes and a slew of options in the return game, but this isn't a vintage group.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: The exterior is already settled, which bodes well for pass protection, but the Hokies can go one of two routes from guard to guard. Begin with the edges: Tech returns senior Mark Shuman, senior Laurence Gibson and sophomore Jonathan McLaughlin, the latter coming off an impressive debut, and new line coach Stacy Searels could side with a three-tackle rotation on both sides before settling on a set pair by the start of ACC play. In my mind – and this despite Gibson currently sitting atop the depth chart – I can't see that Tech wouldn't keep McLaughlin on the blind side; he has room for improvement, obviously, but the potential is there. Now, Searels seems more likely to side with a by-committee approach to the interior, a step that would take advantage of the Hokies' impressive young bodies while preparing the underclassmen cast for next season. If experience trumps all, look for senior Caleb Farris at left guard, senior David Wang at center and sophomore Augie Conte at right guard. If the Hokies want to lean younger, look for Farris and Wang to battle at center while sophomore Wyatt Teller takes over at left guard. Either way, it seems very likely that Tech has seven or eight options across the board – a positive development, I'd say.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Duke: Welcome to the new ACC. Tech's hopes of claiming the Coastal Division title entails trips to North Carolina and Duke, the Hokies' primary competitors; the Hokies also take trips to Ohio State and Pittsburgh, so it's a rowdy road slate. In total, Tech will likely play eight bowl teams and anywhere from two to four teams capable of earning a national ranking. Not a shockingly tough schedule, I'd guess, but nowhere close to smooth.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Virginia Tech has already ceded the ACC to Florida State, to Clemson, to the rest, but this year will help illustrate whether or not this program has given away control of the Coastal Division – long the Hokies' playground. Part of me thinks this team won't go down without a fight: Virginia Tech is one of the division's top three teams, clearly one of the four teams with realistic hopes of winning the divisional crown and absolutely talented enough to move back to the top rung with a healthy degree of improvement on offense. Yes, going to UNC and Duke hurts. The Hokies could still end up winning this division and … well, losing to Florida State in the ACC title game.
Much is riding on Loeffler's offense. It's not so much about the quarterback, though that's important, as about the running game: Tech needs to bully the line of scrimmage to help Brewer work on play-action, since Loeffler's vision clearly extends from run to pass and not vice versa. The line should cooperate; the quarterback position could and perhaps even should improve; the backfield has options, if nothing of immense satisfaction; the receiver corps is very steady among the top three. I'm still a touch skeptical – since even one step forward would still leave Tech way behind the pack in the Coastal rankings.
It's on the defense to carry the water. This group could do just that: Tech's secondary is elite, the line very solid and the linebacker corps just good enough to not be a liability – and there's always Foster, who wakes up and churns out elite defenses on an annual basis. Once again, this smells like a bit of a make-or-break year for the program: The Hokies need a return to the 10-win range in the worst way. I'm confident in this team's ability to end up atop the division but not sure the right sort of wins will be there – you know, the sort that raise eyebrows and impress masses – to deserve a spot inside the top 25. To be honest, I'm really not sure what direction this program is moving – it could be just standing pat, but that's not good enough.
Dream season: Virginia Tech loses to Ohio State and once in ACC play but finishes atop the Coastal Division and well within the top 20.
Nightmare season: The Hokies take another step back to six wins.
Who's No. 31? The first entry in Merriam-Webster's definition of this team's coach's last name spans seven words.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014